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November 25, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #99 - The Fog

John Carpenter and I have always been pretty much best buds when it comes to genre cinema.  Halloween opened my mind, Assault on Precinct 13 thrilled me, Prince of Darkness made me realize critics could be the wrongest people ever....I could go on and on.  Heck, dude's previously had 5 movies named Midnight Movie of the Week here - with The Fog presently becoming number 6 - and this is about the 25th of my 500+ posts that will get tagged with Carpenter's name.  But what some might find hard to believe is that The Fog - which many horror fans regard as one of Carpenter's best films - and I didn't get along extremely well for a long, long time.  There's a story that explains my resistance to Carpenter's seaside ghost story - which, to be fair, I've always LIKED, just haven't always LOVED - and, since this is my blog, I'm gonna tell you that story now.
From the start, Carpenter's tale of the supernatural has the feel of something special.  The opening, in which an old man played by veteran actor John Houseman (who I've always thought was kind of another version of the great Donald Pleasence) tells a group of kids a scary story around a campfire at five til' midnight just reeks of awesomeness.  And when you combine this ominous scene with the Edgar Allan Poe quote that opens the film - "Is all that we see or seem just a dream with in a dream?" - and the strange paranormal events that occur throughout the fascinating seaside villa of Antonio Bay while the film's opening credits are rolling, you have to think there's something deeply supernatural that's gonna happen in this movie.
I was probably 15 or 16 years old when I first met The Fog - which had been strongly recommended by my mother while I begged for horror movies in our country home - and I was still a long way from becoming The Mike that I am today.  But these setting events seemed to represent everything I wanted to love about horror movies - particularly tales of hauntings - and my mind started racing pretty quickly as the film went on.  And that's when I became hyperfocused on a detail that derailed my enjoyment of the movie for more than a decade.
If you don't know, The Fog settles in around the story of the Elizabeth Dane after its opening.  In the film, a priest (played by one of my favorite dudes, Hal Holbrook) discovers that the church he presides over and much of Antonio Bay itself was founded after his ancestors deceived the crew of the Elizabeth Dane - a ship full of rich leper colonists - into crashing into nearby rocks, allowing the "conspirators" to pillage the gold from the ship and bolster their own leper-less community.  And that these events just happened to occur 100 years ago that day.
Father Malone's revelation comes shortly after midnight on that anniversary - which is precisely the same time that several other events in the film occur.  Inanimate objects all over town, mostly electrical devices, malfunction or act out for no good reason; leaving the town confused by the likes of repetitive car horns or self-moving armchairs.  More relevant to the title, a fog bank appears and dooms a ship that's out to sea, setting up the connection to the foggy night when the lepers were sacrificed in the name of fear and greed.  But there's also a third event that occurs at that time, and that's the one that I became convinced meant more than the film thought it meant.
At the same time the town was freaking out and three seamen were doomed by what have been mistakenly called "pirate ghosts", a simple man played by Tom Atkins picks up a young hitchhiker named Elizabeth played by Jamie Lee Curtis.  And that's where my imagination began to get the best of me and makes me mad at John Carpenter (and co-writer Debra Hill).  They introduce a character named Elizabeth at the same time as the fate of a ship named the Elizabeth Dane was discovered, and then had her jump right into bed with Tom Atkins, who didn't seem to have his Night of the Creeps charm yet. Seriously?
So, to sum up, we've got a character named Elizabeth showing up in a town exactly 100 years after a ship named Elizabeth was doomed by the founders of said town.  And I was absolutely positively convinced that that coincidence meant something. (SPOILER ALERT: It did not mean something.)  So, for the rest of the film, I kept expecting this nice young girl who seems like an average Jamie Lee Curtis character and is squeamish around corpses and whose only sin is jumping into bed with Tom Atkins within minutes of meeting him to turn into an undead leper.  In the end, I actually convinced myself that she did turn in to undead leper for several years.  It took many viewings of the film before I looked at myself and went "Hey, The Mike, that girl didn't turn into Fog and come out from under a door, you made that up because of her name."  And when I did call myself out, and really realized that the film didn't intend to have Elizabeth as part of the evil....well, then I got mad at Carpenter and his movie.
This seems like a random enough moment for me to say that I love that Assault on Precinct 13 star Darwin Joston appears in The Fog as a coroner named Dr. Phibes. LOVE IT.
I convinced myself that I liked my ending of the film better than Carpenter and Hill's, because who wouldn't want to see Jamie Lee Curtis turn heel at the end of a movie?  Heck, she was already in full scream queen/good girl mode at this point, it would have been amazing to look back and see her as a nicer version of the bathtub ghost from The Shining or something like that. Alas, my ending to The Fog was completely created by my overactive mind, and after probably a dozen viewings of Carpenter's film I can finally feel safe saying that I was a fool to condemn Elizabeth as a leper ghost just because her name was Elizabeth.
Besides always being mad at the movie for not perfecting a plot twist that I invented in my stupid teenage brain, there's not much else I don't love about The Fog.  I think it might be Carpenter's most well shot film - props to cinematographer Dean Cundey, who went on to get some Oscar nominations and work on hits like Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and Apollo 13 - and it's incredibly interesting.  So interesting that it made a teenager create his own ghost story, actually.  That has to mean something.
Now that I've grown out of my overactive teenage mindset - at least in some ways - The Fog gets better and better each time I see it.  And the more I see it, the more I remember that I should have never doubted John Carpenter while he was on his perfect run from 1976-1988.  I've occasionally criticized filmgoers who have - in my mind again - misread Carpenter films that I consider classics, and I have to admit my own mistake in once misreading The Fog.  It's an effective and well-done horror tale that deserves better than I once gave it.
(One more random note - The 2005 remake of the film, which is truly horrible, actually used a plot twist similar to the one my teenage mind invented which tied its Elizabeth to the events of 100 years ago. I honestly yelled at the screen and start blabbering like Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers when I saw it unfold.  And yes, I was in a public theater.  I regret nothing.)


Christine Hadden said...

I have mad love for this film! It comes in a close third behind Halloween and The Thing for me as far as Carpenter movies! Right from the get-go it is rife with atmosphere and supernatural creepiness.
That being said, I also have major issues with the Jamie Lee character, who was so utterly pointless here it just seems as though she's there to have a 'big name' in the film. She served no purpose other than to service Tom Atkins. Boo.
I despised the remake as well, but was intrigued that they at least tied the Elizabeth character to the story. Too bad it sucked so horribly.
Great write-up, as usual!

The Mike said...

Maybe that was my prob with Jamie Lee's character. You'd really expect her to have more to do with everything, but this was Barbeau and Holbrook and Leigh's show. Glad to see I'm not alone in being confused about her.

Thanks for reading!

David Robson, Proprietor, House of Sparrows said...

I had resisted watching this movie on video for years, holding out hope that I'd get to see it theatrically. And one lovely month not long ago, the lamented Red Vic Movie House had a 35mm print of the film on their calendar for one night only. Hot damn!

So I'm in the theatre, happily, FINALLY absorbing this story (in a worn but totally watchable print). The fog creeps in under the opening credits, the atmosphere thickens, lights start blinking on and off in Antonio Bay...

...and then the theatre loses power.

Actually, the whole of the Upper Haight has lost power, for reasons no one can immediately determine. We wait for the film to resume, but after half an hour we're still in the dark.

We all get passes to return to the theatre, but no word on if they'll reschedule the film (turns out they didn't).

I tell this story to a number of people who know the film, and they uniformly think it's hilarious and appropriate. And I nutpunch each one of them because goddammit I wanted to see THE FOG on the big screen.

I finally bit and watched it on DVD. It's a lovely film, indeed.

generic viagra news said...

The fog isn't a classic but it's a well done film,I'm sure about that!